Best Defensive Strategies for Pickup Soccer

Expert section: Mate Kontra – I’ve played soccer at a very high level all my life. I’ve been coached by ex-pro, D1, and Academy level coaches, currently playing at the MLS-Next level. I’ve played countless pickup games in my free time, and have used many different strategies to win. I am here to share with you the most effective defensive strategies to prevent your opponents from scoring. 

Soccer Photo

Pickup soccer is one of the best ways for soccer players to have fun, while also inducing some competition between the teams. 

Most small-sided games at soccer arenas (the most accessible place to play pickup) are very competitive with high-level players often joining in. 

So they’re usually high scoring, sometimes even going to double-digit scores in a single game. 

During my time playing, I’ve learned that defensive ability is the key difference between teams that can compete and teams that can’t. 

So in this article today, I will share the best defensive strategies for pickup soccer to ensure that your team has the best possible chance of winning. 

Related article: Best Soccer Tactics For Small-Sided Games | MLS-Next Player

Soccer Tactics Board
‘Soccer Tactics Board Next to the Bench’ (#1 Unsplash – Jasper Benning)

Top 3 Defensive Strategies for Pickup Soccer

As we said before, defensive tactics are very important in pickup games due to their high-scoring nature. 

Our aim with this list was to incorporate defensive strategies that will limit the scoring ability of the opposing team, decreasing the number of goals conceded in a match.

I’ve played countless pickup games at various playing levels, and I have used each of the following strategies before. 

When performed correctly, they can be unbelievably effective against any team that you may come across. 

So let’s get into the list. 

Attacker Breaking Away From Defender
‘Attacker Breaking Away From Defender’ (#2 Unsplash – Jeffrey F Lin)

#1: Offside Trap 

The offside trap in soccer is a strategy that is used to catch opposing attackers offsides as they are about to receive a pass. 

In soccer, the offside rule states that a player is in an offside position if they are closer to the goal than both the last defender and the ball, not including the goalkeeper. 

So to execute the offside trap, defenders must move away from the goal as a unit, to make sure that the attackers are closer to the goal when the ball is passed to them. 

This forces the attackers to be in an offside position, eliminating them from the attack. 

But remember, the offside rule is only in effect when the game is played with at least 6 players on each team. 

Games consisting of smaller teams will disregard the offside rule.

Soccer Player Scoring From a Counter
‘Soccer Player Scoring From a Counter’ (#3 Unsplash – Jeffrey F Lin)

When should you use it?

Before deciding if the offside trap should be used, it should be noted that this strategy can be used on and off during a match. 

In fact, it is most effective when your team alternates between using it and not using it. 

Randomly using the strategy throughout the game makes it unpredictable, giving your team a higher chance of succeeding. 

Some signs that the offside trap can work include that the opponents have fast attackers who want the ball in front of them. 

These players will ask for a through ball often, which makes it easier to catch them in an offside position. 

Fast defenders can be useful too because they have a better chance of recovering when the defense makes a mistake. 

Pros & Cons

The biggest advantage of the offside trap is that it limits the opponents’ attacking options by forcing the forwards into an offside position. 

Opponents will have a difficult time playing passes to their forwards because it will create a turnover in possession in the form of a free kick if they are caught by the trap.

Additionally, a higher defensive line reduces the time and space of the opponents on the ball, which limits their ability to build the attack. 

These two advantages complement each other well because reducing the opponents’ space on the ball will naturally encourage them to play through passes to their forwards. 

But keep in mind, by playing through passes, the opponents will likely be caught in an offside position and lose the ball. 

So their only viable option is to try to build out their attack and risk losing the ball in the process.

Advantages in short: 

  • Forces opponents offside
    • Helps win possession of the ball
  • Reduces space & time of opponents on the ball
    • Forces opponents into mistakes
    • Helps win the ball in dangerous areas

Though this strategy only has one real disadvantage, it is significant. 

The idea of this strategy is instead of defending, players use their positioning to leave the attackers in an illegal position to prevent them from scoring. 

It is a great strategy, but it poses a huge risk of being caught out of position.

When the strategy doesn’t work, the attackers are almost always through to goal with only the goalkeeper guarding the net. 

So being caught out of position will almost certainly result in conceding a goal. 

Disadvantages in short:

  • Huge risk of being caught out of position
    • Almost certainly results in conceding a goal

#2: High-Press

High pressing is one of the most effective ways in soccer to force the opposing team into making a mistake. 

In this strategy, players quickly close down opposing players by blocking their passing options to prevent them from building out the attack. 

The goal in mind is to force the opponents to play long passes in the air because it is easier to win possession by intercepting passes and winning aerial duels. 

The size of the pitch makes it easier to intercept passes, almost guaranteeing a turnover when the opponents play an aerial pass. 

Overall, the size of the pitch makes it more challenging for opponents to build their attack because there is little space to work with. 

Soccer Player Attempting a Tackle
‘Soccer Player Attempting a Tackle’ (#4 Unsplash – Jeffrey F Lin)

When should you use it?

Deciding whether or not playing high press is a good idea depends on how skillful the opposing team is. 

It is best to use the high press when the opposing team isn’t great at circulating the ball. 

The less skilled they are at finding passing options, the easier it is to force them into a mistake. 

On the contrary, if the opponents are great at circulating the ball, they can likely break through the high press.

In this case, your team should take a different approach. 

Regardless of the situation, it is generally a good idea to start the game with a high-press approach to catch the opponents off guard.

Your opponents are likely not fully focused at the beginning of the match, so it’s easier to force a mistake and score a goal. 

Pros & Cons

Using the high press is advantageous for several reasons.

Most importantly, it forces the opponents to make mistakes more often which can cause a turnover and a quick counterattack. 

One of the easiest ways to score is by forcing opponents to make a mistake in a dangerous area and take off on a counterattack.

High pressing can also give your team the ability to dictate the tempo of the game. 

By trapping opponents into dangerous spaces it’s possible to keep control of the game tempo without having possession of the ball. 

Advantages in short:

  • Forces opponents to make errors
    • Errors can lead to easy counterattack goals
    • Destroys opponents’ confidence
  • Gives the ability to dictate the tempo of the game
  • Easy to win possession by forcing opponents to play long passes

But there are some notable disadvantages to high press as well. 

The high press is very attack-heavy, utilizing most of the defenders in the pressing duties as well. 

So, the defense has to hold a higher line on the pitch, which leaves them vulnerable to counterattacks.

When the attackers can break free from the defenders, they will immediately be through toward the goal, giving them an easy finish against only the goalkeeper. 

Another disadvantage that should be noted is that constant high press can quickly drain players’ energy with intense sprints, direction changes, and tackles. 

It is not a strategy that should be used during the entire match. 

Disadvantages in short:

  • Attack heavy
    • Leaves defense vulnerable
    • Prone to counterattacks
  • Drains players’ energy

#3: Zonal Defending

One of the least physically-demanding strategies for an effective defense is zonal defending. 

With that said, it is one of the most demanding in terms of tactical knowledge and coordination skills. 

Players are assigned specific areas, or zones, on the field that they are supposed to defend regardless of the situation. 

Whenever a player enters their zone, they have to prevent them from penetrating the defense or scoring a goal. 

The purpose of zonal defending is to keep the defensive shape organized regardless of the situation, by restricting players to specific zones. 

Brexit Sliding Tackle
‘Brave Sliding Tackle’ (#5 Unsplash – Omar Ram)

When should you use it?

The use of zonal defending doesn’t necessarily depend on the opponents’ ability, because this tactic works against almost every team when performed correctly. 

Rather, you should evaluate your own team’s ability to determine if you can execute this tactic in a game. 

So how do you know if your team can succeed with this strategy? 

Well, a significant sign that your team can be successful is having experienced defenders who possess skills such as communication, organization and game sense.

Defenders can see the entire pitch, so they must give commands to their teammates who are in front of them. 

Knowing what to tell their teammates comes from knowing what they need to do and when they need to do it. 

This includes making tackles, blocking passes, and all of the above, so defenders must not be new to the game. 

Another great sign that your team can be successful is having fast players on the team. 

Since zonal defending assigns specific areas to players, they have to be able to effectively guard these zones. 

Fast players can cover ground quickly, making them efficient at protecting their zones. 

Pros & Cons

The primary advantage of zonal defending is the ability to keep the defensive shape organized no matter what. 

Opponents have a difficult time penetrating the defense when everybody is in their positions because all of the vital passing lanes will be blocked. 

Additionally, defenders will not be pulled out of shape easily because of the assigned zones which they have to guard. 

The size of the pitch also provides an advantage to zonal defending, because pickup games are almost always played in a smaller field. 

In this case, players will have to guard smaller areas, making it easier to cover distance and do their job efficiently. 

Advantages in short:

  • Keeps defensive shape organized
    • Blocks vital passing lanes
    • Limits opponent’s ability to create scoring chances
  • Difficult to pull players out of shape
    • Opponents will be forced to go back or play over the top

The biggest disadvantage your team has when playing zonal defending is that the margin for mistakes is very small. 

As we said before, having experienced defenders who are well-coordinated and have great communication skills is key. 

Well, the reason is that miscommunication and small mistakes can have detrimental effects when using zonal defending. 

It is very easy to concede a goal if players are uncertain about who is responsible for challenging a ball, stepping to a player, or covering a passing lane. 

Disadvantages in short:

  • No room for mistakes
  • Risky with inexperienced players
    • Uncertainty often leads to conceding a goal
Defender Wins Aerial Duel
‘Defender Wins Aerial Duel’ (#6 Unsplash – Jeffrey F Lin)


The offside trap is a great, yet risky, strategy for winning possession of the ball while limiting the effectiveness of the long ball.  

As soon as the opponents pass the ball, defenders need to make sure that the attacker who is receiving the ball is in an offside position. 

The defender will win possession of the ball with a free kick.

The high press is a popular defensive strategy that forces opponents into making mistakes to force a turnover of possession. 

It provides the ability to dictate the tempo of the game, and essentially herd the opponents into dangerous areas. 

With the help of this strategy, teams can score easy counterattack goals. 

Zonal defending is the least physically demanding strategy on this list, as players are assigned certain zones to guard on the pitch. 

Pickup games are generally played on smaller fields which makes it easy for players to cover more ground and defend their area effectively. 

Crucially, it helps the team maintain an organized defensive shape to prevent opponents from penetrating the defense.

Image Attribution & Licensing

Featured Image: ‘Pickup Team Group Stretch’ by YuriArcursPeopleImages (Licensed via EnvatoElements)

#1: ‘Soccer Tactics Board Next to the Bench’ by Jasper Benning (Licensed via Unsplash)

#2: ‘Attacker Breaking Away From Defender’ by Jeffrey F Lin (Licensed via Unsplash)

#3: ‘Soccer Player Scoring From a Counter’ (#3 Unsplash – Jeffrey F Lin)

#4: ‘Soccer Player Attempting a Tackle’ by Jeffrey F Lin (Licensed via Unsplash)

#5: ‘Brave Sliding Tackle’ by Omar Ram (Licensed via Unsplash)

#6: ‘Defender Wins Aerial Duel’ by Jeffrey F Lin (Licensed via Unsplash)